Himalaya Honey Hunters Cling to Cliffside Tradition

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According to Ahmad, a key threat to the cliff bees and traditional Nepalese honey hunters is growing recognition of the honey's value for use in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional medicines.

"Nectar produced by some species of rhododendron in high mountain areas brings medicinal qualities to this honey," Ahmad said. "[It] has relaxing properties and is being used a sedative agent. It is also reported that some Korean local healers use it for treating [drug] addicts."

In the past few decades, demand for this A. laboriosa honey, which is produced during the spring when the rhododendrons bloom, has soared. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) fetches upwards of U.S. $15 on the open market.

To supply demand, Nepal's forestry department has transferred ownership of the cliffs from indigenous communities to the government and opened up honey harvesting rights to contractors on a first-come, first-served basis, Ahmad said.

As a result, traditional honey hunting techniques and rituals that ensured a sustainable harvest and maintained bee populations have given way to non-traditional techniques that denude cliffs of nests in an effort by contractors to maximize profits.

Dwindling forage also hinders A. laboriosa populations, as pristine forests are cleared and replanted with non-native commercial crops or fast-growing plantation trees that are of no use to the bees, Ahmad said.

Buchmann has closely studied A. laboriosa's closest relative, Apis dorsata. (Some scientists think the two bees are the same species, however.) Buchmann said deforestation and habitat fragmentation are likely the primary causes behind the A. laboriosa decline.

"It's the main thing hammering pollinators around the world," he said.

Further complicating matters is the fact the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to the region in the 1990s to pollinate non-native crops and increase honey production. Native Himalayan cliff bees must now compete with European honeybees for nectar. When the European honeybee was introduced, so to was its associated parasite, Melissococcus pluton, to which the Himalayan cliff bee has little resistance, Ahmad said.

In response to these changes, according to ICIMOD, young people in traditional communities have shunned honey hunting as a profession, preferring better-paying work such as providing services to tourists as porters and guides.

Ahmad and his colleagues fear that if a new generation of traditional honey hunters is not found, the traditional system will fade away. In its place, they say, people with no interest in sustainable harvesting methods will exploit nests for short-term monetary gains.

Bee Tourism

In order to maintain viable bee populations, Ahmad and his colleagues worked with the honey hunters since 2001 to keep between 20 and 50 percent of the A. laboriosa nests intact at any given cliff site.

"Our initiative is working and honey hunters understand the importance of this bee species by using managed harvesting techniques," Ahmad said.

The next step for the ICIMOD researchers is to promote community-based ecotourism.

The group envisions tourists swarming to Nepal communities to view traditional honey hunters dangling from cliffs on roped ladders. In the process, tourist dollars will pour into the community. (Buchmann said he helped successfully implement a similar, smaller-scale program in Malaysia.)

Ahmad, the Himalayan Honeybees project coordinator, said: "Honey hunting and bee watch tourism is to support the honey hunting communities so that they understand the economic importance of [Himalayan cliff bees] and conserve them voluntarily."

Honey hunting tourism is not enough, Buchmann said, noting that wild honeybees need habitat protection. "It's the best possible thing that could be done."

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